Jennifer R. Donohue grew up at the beach in Manasquan, New Jersey and now lives in central New York with her fiancé and her Doberman. Though she got a bachelor′s degree in psychology, she has always wanted to write, and works at her local public library, where she also facilitates a writing workshop. Her short stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, the Far-Fetched Fables podcast, Mosaics 2: a Collection of Independent Women, and the Sockdolager. She blogs at Authorized Musings, where she occasionally shares fiction and the tribulations of the writing life, and tweets @AuthorizedMusin.
When I was born, my daddy didn’t come home from war, but the army sent a drone, hand sized and with tiny little pincher arms, in a broken-sealed box. Inside, the lid had “Daddy’s gonna watch over you” written on it in Sharpie and the drone was wrapped in a kaffiyeh. In the email he sent Mama pictures of himself without showing where he was, because that’s what war is like. Normally they couldn’t even send paper or especially packages, but it’s an exception when a baby is born.
Mama told me it was our neighbors who brought the package into the hospital, and she opened it while I was napping red-faced in the corner bassinet, worn out from the whole ordeal of getting born. When the drone whirred into life, it hovered in front of Mama’s face for a minute, waving its little pincers like it was getting a feel for the world it found itself in. Then it went to my bassinet and hovered there too. The rotors were a soft soothing hum, and Mama tried to get it together and read the printout of all the features, but I started crying and she gave up, tucked the wad of paper back into the box. Nobody needs to read drone instructions anyway: they always worked right out of the box. The drone went back and forth between her and me until she’d gotten me picked up and settled on her boob. “Babies cry,” she said to the drone. “You gotta relax and understand that it don’t mean they’re dying.”
When I went to kindergarten, my daddy didn’t come home from war, but the drone followed me like a puppy. I draped dandelions on top of it in a golden crown and put a pencil in one of its pinchers. I wore the kaffiyeh like a cape, even though it didn’t go with my princess dress and glitter shoes. We all sat in bright plastic chairs around circle tables and traced our letters next to cartoons about the good things soldiers do to keep us safe from the bad guys. Lots of kids’ mommies or daddies were soldiers, but no other kid had a drone all her own. My daddy was smart and important and that was why I was special enough to have a drone of my own.
The classroom smelled like plastic, crayon wax, and pencil shavings. Miss Libby said it was okay for me to have my drone, it just had to live in my cubby when class was running. It was allowed to come out at naptime and playtime, and I could hear it clicking to itself there in my cubby, so I didn’t miss it too much. It took pictures to send to my daddy in the email, and he sent pictures back, of kids at the local village playing soccer with soldiers whose faces we couldn’t see. Mama was sure one of them was my daddy.
My daddy was tall and handsome like Prince Charming, and Mama told me about how he took her to prom in a limo she didn’t know he had the money to rent. He was already enlisted and headed to boot camp after graduation. Mama’s dress was green like the Emerald City, and my daddy got her white roses for her corsage. She still had the roses, dried, hanging on the corner of her mirror, and the silver shoes were boxed in the bottom of her closet, and I clomped around the house in them when I played dress-up. The dress was sealed in plastic, but she told me I could wear it sometime special, just not to play.
In the early days of the war, before I was born, they were able to talk to each other on the Internet and in video chat. As the war went on, they tightened security, and that wasn’t okay anymore. Just the email. My daddy emailed a lot, told us lots of little stories about everything but the war. Like playing soccer, or getting ice cream, or watching movies the army sends them. I wasn’t always old enough to see the movies, but Mama was, and they sometimes emailed back and forth about this thing or that, real fast before his Internet time ran out, and I got bored and fell asleep in Mama’s lap, the drone clicking a lullabye in my ears.
When I got lost in the woods behind our little house, the last woods for miles around, Daddy didn’t come home from war to look for me. But the drone was there, and flashed its tiny LEDs and used the kaffiyeh like a big ol′ flag so that Mama found me right away when she came looking. It was smart enough to know the way home, but it wouldn’t leave my side unless I told it to. I was too scared to tell it to. I sat on the ground and thought about what it would be like if my big strong daddy came and found me in the woods, in the big dark trees with the green moss that grew up the trunks like ladies’ dresses, but I could only think of him in his prom clothes or his army clothes and neither was right.
Mama was crying when she found me, one of the only times I ever saw her cry, and she carried me home even though I was getting too big. We had ice cream for dinner and stayed up late watching cartoons. We fell asleep together on the couch under a fuzzy blue blanket. When we woke up to go to bed, Mama took me to the window first, where the pale full moon looked in. We waited and watched until the space station passed by, a bright point of fairy light in the sky, and then she showed me how to find Orion’s belt. The night before my daddy deployed, he and Mama stayed out all night with a bottle of champagne, naming constellations to each other. When they saw a shooting star, they wished for me. Sometimes Mama calls me her star baby, and I hope she always calls me that.
When I joined the soccer team, my daddy didn’t come home from war to see me play, but the drone hovered over the field and recorded everything. It wasn′t the only drone in town, sure, but it was the one with the best camera, so my coaches loved it for training. The first kaffiyeh wore out by then, and I cut it up into bandanas, to wear over my braids for luck.
My daddy seemed to know how long that keffiyeh was going to last me; he already sent a new one with a lady from his unit. She’d lost her leg, so she got to come home from war. She was still getting used to the robot prosthesis when she gave me the new kaffiyeh and told me what a role model my daddy was for her. Mama offered her coffee, which she took but didn′t drink, and she didn′t stay long either. When she left, Mama watched out the window until she drove away, then took the cold coffee and poured it down the drain.
We won State that year, and the next. The drone wasn′t allowed to record the big games. I guess most places other than my hometown have stricter drone laws, so I could only email my daddy the articles from the paper. He told me he was proud of me. Everybody signed the game ball with a Sharpie, and I tried to send it to him, but the army refused it. It’s all about security, but I don’t know anybody who really understands security. When the game ball came back in the mail, me and Mama took it to the school and they put it in the trophy case there.
When I was old enough to learn how to drive, my daddy didn′t come home from the war to take his car out of the garage and explain the clutch to me. Mama did that, white knuckled in the passenger seat while the car bucked and stalled out. One of my daddy′s old friends helped too, and they got it through my head that the clutch was a gradual thing, not an on/off switch. When I could finally do it, Mama was so happy, and we drove on the back roads all afternoon with the windows down, whooping and hollering, the drone tailing us waving its little arms like it was happy. We got drive thru for dinner three towns over, and even though I wasn′t supposed to drive at night, she still let me drive us home, the old cracked asphalt turned liquid silver in the moonlight.
When I got my job at the pizza place, my daddy didn’t come home from the war to order a slice. He told me in the email that pizza was different when he was a kid, and everything changed so quickly. Pizza used to have wheat crust and real pepperoni, though honestly, he couldn′t tell me what kind of meat pepperoni was supposed to be made from.
I used the kaffiyeh as a scarf on cold nights delivering in my daddy’s old car and the drone buzzed up ahead of me to watch out for ice and car accidents and cops. Mama made me a Thermos of coffee those nights and stayed up late ’til I was home. Sometimes when I got in the house, she was just sitting at the computer, cursor blinking in the email as she tried to find the right words. It′s not something she set out to teach me, that there weren′t always the right words, but I got the lesson anyway.
I was the only girl delivery driver they had, and sometimes the girls who cashiered at the restaurant asked me if I felt safe. I had the drone and my daddy’s old hunting knife and didn’t much think about it. It was my hometown, and how much bad stuff ever happened to pizza people? I had the best delivery record in the franchise. I used my tips and the bonus for a new transmission and tires and put the rest in my college fund.
When I graduated high school, my daddy wasn’t in the stands, though Mama and her new boyfriend were. I tucked the kaffiyeh inside my cap, and the drone recorded the whole thing, trailing streamers. My daddy emailed that he was proud of me, and as a present, he emailed me the title transfer for his car. Since the divorce, he and Mama didn’t do the email anymore, so sometimes I passed a message between them but more often not. They just ran out of words for each other, I guess. He wouldn′t have any talk about it.
Instead we talked about the car, and soccer, though with the job it was hard to keep the practice hours on the school team. Sometimes I talked about boys. I wore Mama′s emerald green dress when one of the other delivery drivers took me to prom, and he kissed me in the starlight, except we didn′t see any shooting stars. Shyly at first, and this wasn’t anything I told Mama for a long time; mostly I talked about girls. A girl I played soccer with who went driving with me. A girl from the next town over I met at a church social, who tasted like strawberries and gave me a fake phone number. My daddy said he didn′t have any advice on how to pick up boys anyway, so it was kind of perfect that I liked girls better.
When I went to college, my daddy didn’t help me pack the car for the move. I got scholarships from the pizza franchise and from the army. I just missed the soccer scholarship, the college coaches told me, but they got girls in from other countries where soccer was more important. I could understand that. I still made the team, I just wasn′t a starter.
I had my tip money saved, and a job lined up in the new town, four states away. I had the drone, which charged in its little station every night, or attached to the cigarette lighter in the car. It had a few little dings in it, and the casing wasn’t so shiny anymore, but it always ran, whirring and clicking, like a music box that couldn’t quite find its tune.
The army tuned the drone up once a year or so, sometimes sooner if a components upgrade got released. The army guys let me hover anxiously over the repair table when they worked, but it was a good model, built to last. Even though most of the other drones around were cheaper than mine, disposable tech was a thing of the past. I didn’t like to think about what it would be like if the drone wasn’t dogging my steps, flying ahead of me as I drove, turning off lights at night when I went to bed. I didn′t want to think about tipping it into a bin at recycling.
When the first college break came, I didn’t go home. Not the next one either. Mama and her new boyfriend were moved in together in our little house by then, and I had my own apartment, job, friends. My daddy wasn’t going to be home anyway. I stayed at college and I delivered pizzas, and my drone flew sentry like it did at home. I threaded the kaffiyeh through the belt loops in my jeans and cut the sleeves off my delivery shirt. I wore my hair short, gel spiked on top. I had an almost-girlfriend, who I met during freshman orientation.
Sometimes she waited on my back porch when I got home from work. Sometimes we put out a blanket in the backyard and looked at the stars into the night, pointing out constellations and satellites to each other. Sometimes we had the drone make us drinks, a little cocktail sword in its pincher. Sometimes we kicked a soccer ball at the quad or played Frisbee with a big group of people who never seemed to stop playing Frisbee. There were ice cream socials, even though it was just frozen yogurt, or maybe soy. I wondered if I′d ever had real ice cream; when I asked my daddy in the email, he didn’t know either. I thought about calling Mama to ask but it seemed too silly.
When the attack happened, my daddy didn’t come home from the war to visit me in the hospital. Mama did, alone, and she helped me move home, alone. My girlfriend wasn’t my girlfriend anymore, and she left school after that. Maybe got a boyfriend. The EMS said it would’ve been worse for both of us, but my drone had a taser that it put to use after calling 911 with its onboard wireless. The army never told me that. When the police and ambulance came, part of a fraternity’s pledge class was crumpled on the sidewalk. Their hoodies were pulled up tight, baseball bats on the pavement next to curled bloody hands.
I could have worn the kaffiyeh to cover the scars, or grown my hair out again, but I didn’t. Nobody asked me about it, any of it, not even Mama. I told my daddy about it in the email. How for a couple of weeks they′d been yelling things at us, though nobody else ever noticed or cared. That there′d been a car outside the apartment a couple of nights with the lights off, which always peeled away at some point, leaving a cloying burned rubber smell in the air for hours. How we walked hand in hand and heard them on the sidewalk behind us and didn′t know what they were going to do. How we just thought it was a group of losers trying to scare us, not hurt us. My daddy told me that sometimes, being scared hurts too. My daddy told me he loved me. Told me he was sorry.
When the war ended, my daddy didn’t come home.
I tried to be patient. I waited. I asked him. I begged him. He told me he was figuring the best way to explain. The drone clicked and whirred around me, and finally bumped into a closet door over and over until I opened the door, took down the box the drone came in. “Daddy’s gonna watch over you,” the lid said on the inside. Sharpie doesn’t really ever fade. The drone landed, pinched at the flaps to expose the cardboard it had nested in. I don′t know why I had never looked at it before, since for all those years, Mama kept the box and I kept the box. I pulled out the cardboard to find the instruction manual, and there was a yellowed envelope in there too, a trifold document with an Army seal. “It is with deep regret I am writing to inform you . . .”
I looked at the drone. The drone bobbed, clicked, and whirred.
When I was born, my daddy came home from war, but not in the way anybody expected. He wanted to watch over his baby girl, and the army made that happen the only way they could.
Image, Creative Commons: https://pixabay.com/en/users/TheRokon-1953055/